Friday, September 8, 2006

Former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami yesterday defended his country’s nuclear program and rejected suggestions that freedom and human rights in Iran had deteriorated under his hard-line successor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Mr. Khatami, who is considered a moderate in Iran’s political spectrum, told reporters at the Washington National Cathedral shortly before delivering a speech on “dialogue of civilizations” that Iran’s nuclear effort is peaceful and that the world should focus on the atomic arsenals of Israel and other states before criticizing Iran.

At the press conference, Mr. Khatami said Iran could discuss suspending its nuclear program once talks with the West had begun. After meeting with reporters he addressed an audience of about 1,200 people at the cathedral.

That also was a paraphrase of the official Iranian position that there should be talks without preconditions.

Mr. Khatami appeared to be warning the United States against using force against Iran, saying this would never resolve the standoff over Iran’s suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Iran would not give up its nuclear program in the face of outside pressure, he said. “We must eliminate the language for the dialogue to be successful.”

Dressed in a full-length black robe and black turban, Mr. Khatami said Iran’s political system should not be judged by the standards of established Western democracies because the United States’ own human rights record is not perfect.

“Iran has its problems, but they are not greater than the violations of human rights we saw at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo,” he said.

As Mr. Khatami spoke, a crowd of about 50 demonstrators gathered across the street from the cathedral, waving U.S. and Iranian flags and demanding freedom for the Iranian people.

In Berlin, meanwhile, the United States and five other countries remained deadlocked in negotiations over whether to punish Iran for continuing its nuclear program in defiance of the U.N. Security Council.

Mr. Khatami acknowledged that his two-week American tour had been criticized by religious hard-liners in Iran, but he said he did not think that Iran had regressed under Mr. Ahmadinejad.

“I don’t think things have reversed,” he said. “Of course their interpretation may be different than mine, but on women and youth, the new president has said things that are very hopeful.”

Mr. Ahmadinejad has enforced dress codes requiring that women be dressed in black or dark blue Islamic garb from head to toe and has begun a campaign to purge liberal and secular professors from the nation’s universities. Mr. Khatami’s successor has also called for Israel’s destruction.

Mr. Khatami spoke in Farsi, the official language of Iran, and his remarks were translated by an interpreter. He began with a short statement, in which he praised Jesus and Muhammad as great prophets. He then took questions from reporters who packed the southeast section of the cathedral nave.

He spoke against the backdrop of a banner proclaiming “My house shall be called the house of prayer for all people.” (Isaiah 56:7)

The State Department has said Mr. Khatami’s visit is a private one, and that no U.S. officials will meet him while he is here.

Department spokesman Sean McCormack said U.S. officials hope Mr. Khatami will benefit from contacts with private U.S. groups, but said there was no change in the Bush administration’s stance opposing Iran’s Islamic regime.

But Iranian exiles and dissidents who had been jailed and tortured held a press briefing to condemn Mr. Khatami’s visit and the administration’s decision to issue the former president a visa and provide at no cost State Department security protection during his two-week U.S. stay.

Reza Pahlavi, son of the late shah who was ousted in the 1979 Islamic Revolution, said that despite Mr. Khatami’s image as a “moderate,” he has been a critical part of the “clerical dictatorship that holds our country hostage.”

Religious minorities in Iran were harshly persecuted under Mr. Khatami, Mr. Pahlavi said. “Regardless of his smiling rhetoric, the true nature of the regime is far different from what Khatami wants us to believe.”

Rep. Brad Sherman, California Democrat, said the State Department listed Iran as the world’s top state sponsor of terrorism for all eight years of Mr. Khatami’s administration, which ended last year.

With the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks looming, “it is an insult to those who died that day that American taxpayer money is being used to fund a terrorism promotion tour,” Mr. Sherman said.

Mr. Khatami spoke earlier in the day at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, and will speak Sunday at Harvard University, where critics have also attacked the decision to allow him to speak.

In earlier stops in Chicago and New York, the ex-president had sharply criticized what he called “aggressive” U.S. policies in the Mideast, but also appealed for better understanding between the Muslim world and the West.

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